13 June 2014
Dante-based audio networking brings a new era of digital audio routing and control to video broadcast production
Looking back, it can be difficult to remember that many of the technologies we now see as having been inevitable were not long ago in their infancy, their future prospects uncertain. In 1996, for example, with the World Wide Web only a couple of years old, few people outside of academia and the military had much understanding of what “Internet Protocol” (IP) was and how it could be used. Digital audio, meanwhile, had been around in various forms for a while, but the AES/EBU standard had only recently been fully embraced by the audio industry as a common means of digital interchange. “I often think to myself,” says John Ball, who began a career at Microsoft that year, “how cool it was to have seen how AES changed the future of audio by enabling a full transition to digital. And now I’m here to witness the next phase in that evolution, which is changing the world of digital audio from AES to IP.”
Ball isn’t merely observing this transition; he’s actively participating in it. A systems engineer, Ball has been working since 1999 at Microsoft Production Studios, an extensive, fully-equipped video production and post-production facility housed in one of the 40-plus buildings at Microsoft’s 300-acre corporate headquarters in Redmond, Washington. Since its inception 26 years ago, MPS has relied on RTS intercoms for communications throughout the complex as well as between on-site staff and production crews working on location. Now Ball is leading the facility’s communication systems in a new direction, extending the familiar reliability and flexibility of the RTS ADAM digital matrix system onto the now-ubiquitous platform of IP over fiber and copper cable.
The key enabler of this move toward IP is OMNEO, a media networking architecture co-developed by RTS parent company Bosch that combines device monitoring and control capabilities with audio transport via Audinate’s Dante™, a fully-realized system for the transmission of high resolution/low latency digital audio over standard IP networks. Ball is finding that the integration of OMNEO into the RTS comms environment isn’t simply improving the comms system itself, but is also redefining how ADAM can be used to acquire and route all types of audio for production and post.
Anything for anyone
Billed as the largest media production facility in the Northwest, MPS describes itself as creating “more than 3000 media productions” every year for both outside clients and Microsoft’s own internal production needs. The 65,000 square foot site offers a full range of services from preproduction to post, including not only full broadcast production (grip, lighting, camera, electric, audio) but also in such areas as concept and storyline development, editing, sound design and mixing, lighting design, motion design, and distribution and management for both program and assets. Also key to MPS’s success is driving media innovation for Microsoft as a whole. MPS is equipped and staffed to handle projects including commercials, promos, corporate and press events and presentations, interviews, integrated marketing campaigns, episodic television programs, animation, gaming, screen capture, kiosks, trainings, tutorials, and demonstrations.
In Ball’s words, MPS handles “anything and everything for anyone and everyone. A lot of the work for outside clients is on projects where Microsoft has some kind of tie-in, association, or partnership. But on the other hand there are times when we have things come in — several cooking shows, for example — that are completely unrelated to Microsoft; our stage is available and we rent it out to them staffed with our people or their own.”
At the smaller end of the production range are simple projects such as on-screen video tutorials that are included with products shipped to consumers, or executive conference calls with analysts. MPS was also the West coast home of productions for MSNBC including Connected Coast to Coast
, a daily political talk show in which political analyst and presidential son Ron Reagan held forth from an MPS sound stage while Richard Nixon biographer Monica Crowley counterpunched from New Jersey.
Among the more complex productions handled by MPS was a series of shoots for MSN Music that featured performances by artists such as Alanis Morissette, Janet Jackson, David Byrne, and Heart. “We literally took the stage sets that the artists were using on tour, brought them into one of our sound stages, and then shot videos that were used on the music section of the MSN home page,” Ball says.
The bulk of the work these days relates to core corporate functions such as product rollouts and worldwide communications with employees, analysts, and customers. “A lot of what we’re doing now,” Ball says, “is remote productions in which MPS serves as a digital hub for production and distribution.”
For in-studio work, MPS has three main sound stages and one small insert stage with a capture/demo station. “The main stages are big enough that we can have live audiences,” Ball says. “We also have green screen and a threewall cyc to provide that infinite white effect.” The stages are connected to two production control rooms, each of which has recently been upgraded to 3G 1080p/60Hz HD video with Sony MVS-8000 series switchers. There are also 13 video edit rooms, which use either Apple Final Cut Pro or Adobe Premiere.
Audio facilities include three main audio rooms that double for live broadcast mixing and audio post, including music composition, and sound design. The rooms support mixing to stereo as well as to either 5.1 or 7.1 surround. Each is equipped with a ProTools system mixed on an Avid ICON D-Control. Remote productions use a Yamaha CL5 series digital mixing console. The rooms also each include an announce booth. While music recording is not a primary function of MPS, the audio rooms and sound stages can be used together to provide a control room/recording studio combination when needed, with gobos providing in-studio isolation.
Another key area of the facility is the Technical Operations Center (TOC), which often serves as a transit point for program and comms throughout the rest of the complex and also going out for distribution. “We have a satellite farm on top of the building,” Ball says. “Any set of signals coming in via fiber or satellite, or going out via broadcast, whether it’s over satellite or fiber, goes through the TOC. A lot of the communications on our comms are happening either within that room or between that room and other locations. Today we were doing a live broadcast and we had seven people using comms in that room, communicating in the room, to other production rooms, and to people in New York.”
Until MPS began using OMNEO, comms throughout the facility were primarily analog RTS 4-wire. “We also have the 2-wire systems on our stage, which are cloned into the cameras,” Ball says. “And we have wireless UHF beltpack systems like the BTR-800 and BTR-1.”
Dante’s debut on the MPS stage wasn’t for comms but rather for distribution of multiple discrete audio programs to a set of distributed audio playback systems. “When you walk into a Microsoft retail store,” Ball explains, “you’ll see video screens that run the entire length of each side, creating up to seven digital signage zones per side. For each of these zones there is a different audio track. The system is fed from a proprietary system that Microsoft Production Studios developed for the stores, which uses Dante over Ethernet to send the audio signal to the sound system for each zone.”
As well as creating the in-store content, MPS drives the concept, system design, deployment, and production standards. “The final sound mixing for the stores happens on one of our sound stages,” Ball says. “We have a system that we can bring out quickly to make a scale mock setup of the retail environment. We use the Audinate Dante Virtual Sound Card software, which allows Pro Tools to output audio as Dante via the computer’s Ethernet network interface card. We feed that into a Symetrix Edge that distributes it to playback systems for the 15 zones. That’s how we mix the audio to the video that they hand off to us.” Ball says he and his colleagues “very much liked what we heard” when they started using Dante this way.
This initial exposure to Dante set the stage for MPS’s subsequent adoption of OMNEO for comms. The OMNEO media networking architecture enables a standard IP Ethernet network to serve as a platform for the exchange of two key types of data. One is studio-quality synchronized multichannel audio, delivered at near-zero latency using Dante. The other is device monitoring and control data, using Open Control Architecture (OCA), an open communications protocol architecture that is currently being finalized as a standard by the Audio Engineering society. OMNEO networks support exchange of both data types across networks totaling up to 10,000 OMNEO-equipped devices.
OMNEO is implemented in RTS intercom systems using one or more OMI cards in an ADAM or ADAM-M matrix frame. Each OMI card can support from 16 to 64 bidirectional ports, with up to eight OMI cards supported on an ADAM and up to four on an ADAM-M. Connections may be made with standard RJ-45 connectors (for Cat-5 or Cat-6 cable) or using optional single mode and multimode fiber modules that plug into slots on the cards to enable full fiber connectivity. On the keypanel end, OKI keypanel interface cards, which also take the plug-in fiber modules, enable OMNEO in RTS KP-32, KP 32 CLD, or KP 12 CLD keypanels.
Ball says that after nearly 20 years of continuous service, parts of the existing comms system at MPS were showing their age. “Our original RTS KP-96 intercom panels were still rocking,” he explains, “but they were overdue to be replaced. They use 20-plus year old technology, and RTS no longer supports that model, so we knew we would not be able to get replacement parts. Same with some of our ADAM frame cards, which we’d been using day and night since 1996.”
Budget was allocated for an upgrade to newer RTS models, Ball says, and “just as we started down that path RTS came out with OMNEO. The timing couldn’t have been any better. It became a natural transition, because we already knew from having worked with the Dante protocol for audio that Dante was how we were going to upgrade our audio paths. Putting the comms and the audio on a single Ethernet system allows you to have a much simpler, less expensive, easier-to-manage network of cabling and routing.”
Ball tried out the OMNEO comms with one OMI card for MPS’s ADAM frame and three KP-32 keypanels outfitted with OKI cards. “I was very happy with the experience,” he says. “We worked with Chuck Roberts, who was our main liaison on the technical side at RTS. As I started getting deep into hardware and software upgrades, the RTS team was really good about getting us what we needed. And things have worked out so well that OMNEO is now going to be our main comms platform moving forward.”
OMNEO beyond comms
Given its longstanding preeminence in the intercom market it’s perhaps not a huge surprise that RTS, backed by the vast technical resources of parent company Bosch, has been able to successfully migrate its comms platform toward an increasingly IP-oriented world. But as Ball is now discovering, the ability to route full-fidelity audio over great distances with virtually no latency opens up new possibilities, allowing the utility of RTS matrix frames to be extended beyond comms.
“I just finished a session the other day,” Ball says, “where my ADAM was acting more as a digital audio router that was also handling intercom on the side. It was a live webcast of an executive VP of marketing speaking to Microsoft marketing groups worldwide. The EVP was in one of our theaters in Redmond, and the employees were either gathered in central locations or just watching over the Internet wherever they happened to be, at home or at their desks. And we were at MPS, where we mixed the audio, switched the video, compressed the program signal, and sent it out as a webcast.”
ADAM’s OMNEO capability played a key role by enabling Ball to route full-fidelity audio over fiber to and from the theater — more than a mile each way — with no perceptible latency. “We have wireless body packs that take either lavalier or handheld mics and output Dante,” Ball says. “The signals from those microphones and the remote comms, as well as the video from all of the cameras, were all remoted back via fiber to us here at MPS. We mixed the audio live on a Dante-enabled Yamaha mixer, and also split those mic signals into the ADAM, using OMNEO to route hot mics to the producers and to route audio to the Technical Operations Center, where program was being fed to the webcasting boxes. We also ran comms and a mixed program feed on Dante back to the remote site. So I was using the IFB page in the ADAM Edit software as a router, and I was using the Dante Controller configuration software to connect devices so the audio would go where it needed to go.”
Since low latency would be crucial to mixing the program feed and returning it to the theater in real time, Ball did a test to be sure the system was fast enough. “We took audio from a microphone at the theater over the fiber to MPS and then back to the theater, where we plugged it into the PA. We clocked the latency at less than one millisecond for the entire two-mile signal path. There was no discernable delay whatsoever.”
MPS is also using OMNEO for routing in situations such as simultaneous translation. “For the upcoming E3 show, for example, we’re making a presentation in Los Angeles that will be live-streamed to X-Boxes worldwide,” Ball says. “The presentation is in English but we’ll have translators for nine additional languages here at MPS, and we’ll be mixing their translations into the feeds that will be streamed from our Technical Operations Center. The translators will need to hear the audio feed but they don’t need to hear themselves, so we’ll use OMNEO to route a mix-minus feed to each translator’s headphones.”
Another example of OMNEO-enabled routing relates to Ball’s use of the OKI cards in MPS’s KP-32 keypanels. “The OKI card has a second Dante channel associated with it that is not typically used in the KP-32,” he says. “So I worked with RTS to get that second channel out to the XLRs on the back of the KP-32. Now when I’m using the KP-32s, here or in the field, I can assign program audio to that second Dante channel via Dante Controller, and send that audio into the second channel on the KP-32’s OKI card.”
One use of this capability, Ball says, is to route an audio feed via a KP-32’s second channel to a powered monitor in the production control room that is set up just for a teleprompter operator. “Now the teleprompter operator can control their own volume by just grabbing a knob next to their position. So when the teleprompter is the only thing going on in the room we don’t have to have additional staff in there, and when there are other things going on the operator can listen to the local monitor at the volume they want without us having to hot up the entire room from our main audio playback system.”
Integration with VLink
As Ball is discovering new possibilities for routing full-fidelity audio with OMNEO he’s also finding ways to extend the reach of comms using Dante with RTS VLink. VLink provides non-blocking, multi-channel/multi-access intercom over IP using software. The VLink Virtual Matrix software runs on a dedicated server while VLink Control Panel client software can run on any Internet-connected desktop, laptop, or mobile. “Our VLINK server is set up with a Focusrite REDNET PCIe card, which is recognized by the server as an ASIO soundcard,” Ball says. “This gives me 128 channels of bi-directional audio onto my Dante network. From there I can use Dante Controller to route all the I/O I need to and from my VLINK server to OMNEO.”
Ball recently used this setup to enable comms from New York to MPS for the product launch of Microsoft’s Surface 3 tablet. “We didn’t have any fiber available from New York all the way back to Redmond,” he says. “So all of our people in New York who needed to be involved in the backend communication — our engineer, director, technical director, and producer — were set up with the VLink app for their iPhones and Android phones. They had the earbuds with built-in microphones, and they were connected over cellular to the outward-facing IP address of our VLink server. The VLink output was connected over the Dante network through the OMI card to the ADAM frame, at which point the comms brought in via VLink were just like any other intercom on the system. So they were able to use their smart phones for remote comms.”
Ball is also using VLink to enable an in-house system for video editors to summon technical help from their edit rooms. “In the Edit rooms,” he says, “I plug a button-activated mic and a speaker into an AtteroTech unDIO2X2 that is connected to the Dante network. Using Dante Controller I can then route those units to a block of channels that I have setup on VLink for edit room communication. The edit tech has VLink Control Panel software on his Surface Pro, and when an editor uses the mic to summon a tech, the tech can see in the app which room is calling. The edit assistant can also be called the same way through a KP32 via OMNEO.”
The next phase
With OMNEO and VLink having proved themselves both versatile and reliable over the last 9 months at MPS, Ball is ready to move into the next phase of OMNEO adoption. “This summer we are replacing all of our remaining KP-96s with OKI-equipped KP-32s,” he says. Part of what makes it so appealing to keep trying new ways of using OMNEO is that it’s been so easy to get new configurations up and running. “It’s very straightforward,” Ball says. “Plug it in and it works. It’s new technology, but RTS tech support has been very quick in making firmware updates, and they’ve been great about helping me over the phone. If I run into any issues they get me going again within hours.”
Another aspect of OMNEO’s appeal is that with the basic IP infrastructure already in place new capabilities can be brought on line without a major investment in additional cabling and routing. “Without OMNEO, I’d need to use a lot more copper for analog comms and AES digital audio,” Ball says. “But with OMNEO and Dante, it’s all over network cable. That makes it a natural for us because we’re already transitioning to 4K video over a 10 Gbps network, and with OMNEO our multi-channel audio and multichannel comms can ride right on those same IP paths. Plus instead of having to do a bunch of patching and run a bunch of mults for the routing, it’s all done in a software routing table. The whole thing is a big cost-saver not only for cable but also for labor.”
Ball sees nothing but positives in the fact that Dante-enabled systems like OMNEO are becoming more and more common. “The new Dante-enabled devices that are coming on line give us the ability to do more things with digital audio in general and specifically through our ADAM using OMNEO,” he says. “The initial adoption of Dante seems to be strongest in the area of live and installed sound, but with the ability that OMNEO gives you to do things like redundant feeds and quick and easy setup for remotes, it would be awesome to see OMNEO adoption grow fast in the live broadcast production space as well. At MPS we’ve been a kind of early test bed, and our experience has shown what it can do, and that it definitely works great for a whole new range of things.”
Microsoft Production Studios website